Pope Pius XII Chose Not To Speak Out Against Hitler In Controversial Play

Cesare Orsenigo and Adolf Hitler

Pope Pius XII chose not to speak out against Adolf Hitler during World War II. The Deputy is a controversial 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth which portrayed Pope Pius XII as having failed to take action or speak out against the Holocaust. As one reads The Deputy it is very difficult to empathize with the Popes’s decisions regarding the millions of people who were being gassed in death factories at the very same time that he was sitting on his throne washing his hands. Empathy with the Pope in this situation is difficult by design. Rolf Hochhuth does an excellent job of making it nearly impossible to empathize with Pius XII. Hochhuth does this by drawing on the reader’s emotions.

Act Five, Scene One is one example. The monologue spoken by an anonymous Jew in a box car on the way to a death camp draws the reader so close to the Jew’s experience that one can hardly empathize with the Pope.

“No hope, beloved, that you will ever find me. Cold, God is cold as the pomp of San Giovanni’s. It’s nothing to him that this woman sitting next to me will never bear her child, that I will never be yours. Cold, God is cold; my hands grow numb when I try to fold them to pray with. And the gods of the ancients are as dead as their legends, dead as the ancient rubble in the Vatican museum, the morgues of art. Or else I would hope you would find me as Orpheous found Eurydice.”

An ordinary person reading this excerpt from an adolescent woman’s monologue on the way to a death camp will probably find it difficult in his or her heart to empathize with the Pope as he decides not to speak out against these atrocities. However difficult Hochhuth makes it to empathize with the Pope’s inaction during World War II, it is my tough work as a journalist and a historian to present the Pope’s case for inaction as he saw it, according the The Deputy.

In order for one to find empathy for the Pope one must remember that that Pope is very much removed from the scenes of individual suffering witnessed by the reader and the characters in the story. The Pope was not present when the Jewish family in Rome was taken from their home. He did not hear the monologues in Act Five. Pius XII was not in Auschwitz to see people being gassed by the hundreds of thousands as Riccardo and Gerstein were.

Vatican City

An example of the horrific sights presented to the reader, but not to the Pope, is found in Act One, Scene One, as Gerstein describes the gas chambers to the Nuncio of Berlin.

“So far they’ve been running the gas chambers on carbon monoxide, common exhaust gas. But many times the motors will not start. In Belzec recently I had to watch – this was on August 20 – while the victims waited two hours and forty-nine minutes until the gas came on. Seven hundred and fifty persons in each of four chambers – each room with a volume of sixty cubic yards – three thousand human beings. Some pray, some weep, some shriek. The majority keep silent. The gassing operation takes twenty-five minutes. Now they want to speed it up, and so they’ve brought me in for consultation. I am an engineer and medical man. (Screams) I will not do it; I will not do it… Like marble columns the naked corpses stand. You can tell the families, even after death convulsed in locked embrace – with hooks they’re pulled apart. Jews have to do that job. Ukrainians lash them on with whips.”

Gerstein is obviously deeply troubled by the events he has witnessed. This is exactly how Hochhuth wishes the reader to respond, with disgust. The Pope does not react the same way because he is so far removed from the situation. Pius XII lives the padded life of a prince and has no grasp of how the common man lives his life. Therefore it is reasonable to expect the Pope to have a different reaction as someone who actually witnessed these events.

Why doesn’t Pope Pius XII protest more rigorously Hitler’s extermination of the Jews? How can the man who represents one of the world’s most influential moral organizations stand by and say very little as millions of innocent people are exterminated? The answers to these questions can be found in Act Four, which features an audience with Pius II.

The Pope’s responsibilities are many. In The Deputy two of these responsibilities come in to conflict and the Pope must choose to sacrifice the fulfillment of one for the other. These two responsibilities are, one, to be a spokesperson for the defenseless people of the planet and, two, to ensure that the Catholic Church, as an organization, can fulfill its’ duty as the savior of souls. During World War II the Germans were occupying Rome, where the Vatican, home to the Pope, is located. Therefore the Pope could not speak out against Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, because that would have jeopardized the ability of the Church to fulfill its’ duty as savior of souls. Pius XII decided the only way to insure the Church’s obligation to human souls was to remain neutral during the conflict, even at the expense of millions of lives. As the Pope points out; to speak out against Hitler would be to speak out against all of Germany.

“But what of our ships out in the world, which we must steer? Poland, all of the Balkans, even Austria and Bavaria? Into whose harbors will they sail? They may easily be shattered by the storms, or else drift helplessly to the land on Stalin’s shores. Germany today is Hitler. They are visionaries who maintain that overthrow of the present regime in Germany would result in the collapse of the front. We expect less than nothing from Hitler’s generals who want to dispose of him. They wanted to act as far back as the spring of nineteen-forty. And how did they act? They let Hitler pin decorations on them and smashed all of Europe into kindling wood. We know that manner of men from our own days in Berlin. The generals themselves have no opinions. When Hitler falls, they will all go home…”

Pope Pius XII concludes that the situation in Europe will sort itself out. He is confident that Hitler will fall without intervention from the Vatican and to speak out against Hitler now would create now would create an enemy of the German people even after Hitler’s demise. This would compromise the Vatican’s ability to save human souls in the future. Riccardo, on the other hand, asserts remaining silent about the moral atrocities being committed would destroy the future moral credibility of the Church.

Martyrs to the Vatican's cause.

Another reason Pius XII is reluctant to take action against Hitler is the threat of a Europe controlled by Joseph Stalin and Communist Russia. The Popes points out in Act Four that Hitler is the only thing standing in the way of Stalin’s ability to conquer Europe.

“Hitler alone, dear count, is now defending Europe. And he will fight until he dies because no pardon awaits the murderer. Nevertheless, the West should grant him pardon as long he is useful in the East. In March we publicly declared that we have nothing, nothing at all, to do with the aims of Great Britain and the United States. Let them first come to an accommodation with Germany.”

Pius XII determines that Hitler needs to remain in place until Great Britain and the United States come to an agreement with Nazi Germany. This would mean that Hitler would be able to focus on the Eastern front and be able to keep Stalin, and non-Catholic Russia, out of Europe. Pius XII was willing to count millions of Jews as martyrs to the balance of political power in Europe. This decision by the Pope does not align with someone who seeks to be the moral leader of humanity. However, he is the leader of a human organization which has its’ own interests in mind. Pius XII makes his wish for balance of power very clear in this next excerpt from “The Deputy.”

“Tempi Passati, Eminence. Very long past, certainly the terror of the Jews is loathsome, but we must not allow it to incense us so that we forget the duties that devolve upon the Germans for the immediate future as the present protectors and rulers of Rome. Moreover, Germany must remain viable not only to hold the frontiers against the East, but also to hold the balance of power. The balance of the continent is more important than its’ unity which hardly corresponds to Europe’s ancient national traditions.”

Pope Pius XII continued to assert that the order of events of World War II were set in accordance with his god’s master plan, and that they will and have worked themselves out. Many of the decisions made by Pius XII were influenced by his understanding of his place in history. However prudent the Pope’s argument, many people will find it hard to empathize with him. The Pope’s final solution for Nazi Germany was to brush the execution of millions of people under the rug, in order to solidify political strength following the conclusion of a war that cost hundreds of millions of human lives.